Essay – On “Restrained, Elegant Prose”

There’s an old tale often retold in self-help books with Christian roots a la Norman Vincent Peale: an orator recites Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, to an audience who listens rapturously to his words and then breaks out into applause when he is finished. After a moment, an old man steps hesitantly up to read the same psalm. The orator is surprised but allows him to continue. Thereupon the old man bends his head and recites the psalm in a quiet, unmarked fashion, but with tears on his cheeks. When he finishes, nobody applauds. This is because the audience are weeping with him.

The orator is naturally confused. Why has this old man moved these people in a way that he cannot? Then he gets it. “The difference between us,” he says to the old man, “is that I know the Psalm, but you – you know the Shepherd.”

I was reminded of this the other week when I read yet another review lavishly praising a novel for its “elegant” and “restrained” prose style. As it happened, this work is by an author whose work I enjoy and admire. But I wonder if there is a tendency in Irish critical circles to “know the psalm and not the shepherd” when they praise restraint as an end in itself, rather than a means to be employed to an end.

A while back, I read a novel which was beautifully written, with the culture vividly depicted, the stories skilfully told. It won critical acclaim. But one scene, which described a tragic event, was written with the same beautiful prose. And with restraint. The prose was restrained all right. It recounted the event with icy serenity. All punches were pulled. I felt as if the raw emotional impact were muffled, then muffled some more.

More recently, I was working on something new. Desperate to find the correct approach, I asked my friend Helena Mulkerns for advice. Helena writes herself, frequently about conflict zones because of her work there. She knows war. My instinct was to go for broke, but I doubted myself. Could the impact be greater if done more subtly?

Helena was having none of it. Life can be painful, jagged, traumatic and difficult, she said. Go for broke.

I did as she advised – and it was the right decision. And as I was coming across more of this fetishisation with being “restrained” in one’s writing, particularly prevalent in Ireland, I realised what was bothering me about it, and why the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature are wrong.

Restraint is a technique, not a style.

Writerly restraint is no more or less than affording the reader the courtesy of space to experience the impact of the scene for herself. It’s about pulling back and allowing the reader to infer, rather than constantly poking at her with countless authorial interjections.

Restraint, for example, is not about saying “and so to bed” when a romantic relationship is consummated and fading to black, it’s about describing the encounter between them while keeping the fine balance between authenticity and avoiding cliché and overkill. Not that there is anything wrong with fading to black if it is consonant with the style of the story, but if it’s not, then the problem is lack of restraint – in this case indulging in hangups about sex rather than going through the severer discipline of working past them in order to be more true to the page.

But I don’t think the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature are praising genuine restraint. What they’re keen on is prose that doesn’t get too…well…emoshional. Heaven forbid. Drama is frowned upon, as are bold strokes. Bach is OK – though that slow Adagio with its mournful oboe on the first Brandenburg Concerto is on thin ice – but Wagner is right out. If prose is well-crafted enough, who cares if it happens to be about absolutely nothing, or has tried its worst to be about something but has collapsed under the deadweight of its own elegance? (In bookshops and on Amazon, I have picked up novels in the last year that answer to that fault, and rapidly put them down again.)

Restraint, in their eyes, is no longer a means to tell a more powerful story. Story is old hat. Restraint has become an end in itself.

That means that writers, in order to get past the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature, need to pick themes that facilitate restraint. Well I might as well give up at the starting whistle: a baroque, romantic love story set during WWI is off to a bad start. Tch tch, where’s the nuance, and the rain, and the rural cottage in that? But here’s the thing: I think the loss of story is something to be lamented. Our ancestors survived hard times by passing on stories to each other, and the Irish royal courts of old celebrated their bards and storytellers. Nineteenth century Irish writers were crafting such models of restraint and subtlety as…um…Melmoth the Wanderer, Castle Rackrent and Dracula. So what’s changed?

Cultural Climate

I think this is part of a wider problem in our polity. The tone of discourse in many of our media is moving more towards shutting down discussion than opening it up. Hundreds of years of fear and deprivation, remnants of Catholic hegemony and a raging inferiority complex are beginning to take their toll. Articles have appeared criticising those who “lose the run of themselves” who challenge carefully controlled propaganda. Stigma against the mentally ill, in spite of countless campaigns, still runs rampant through our society. Sanity, deadening, phlegmatic sanity, has taken over the body politic, is killing our ability to write exuberantly. Laura Riding once advised, “If you find something to tell, tell it to your truest, though that make little to tell; the truer you speak, the more you will know to tell.” I fear her words, that come from a saner place than our sanity, have become lost.

The inferiority complex, I think, makes us want to be more Ascendancy, even if we are not; at the same time it urges us in the opposite direction from Ascendancy literature, pushing us to shun emotional extravagance and bright colours. Never mind if you care about the characters, that’s just cheap thrills – what was that metaphor like? Did the turn of phrase prove critically pleasing? If the reader is engaged too passionately, something’s up. Dodgy, that. We Irish don’t trust passion. We’re afraid of it Yeats’s damning words in “September 1913” remain true for us. Losing the run of ourselves, so we are.

So, what to do? For me the answer is – continue to write and engage and care. Continue to tell stories that move me. Continue to obey Laura Riding’s maxim; continue to seek the advice of those I trust, like Helena. To write unrestrainedly – and to use restraint when needed. And if the Gatekeepers of Irish Literature don’t like that, well…

…they can f*** right off.

That restrained and elegant enough for ya? 🙂


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24 thoughts on “Essay – On “Restrained, Elegant Prose”

  1. Ties in beautifully with conversations I’ve had lately with friends about books we LIKE to read versus those we SHOULD read because of such lauded elegance, restraint, and…yaaawn. But, I come from Middle Eastern stock, and was raised in the USA, so emotional restraint was not on the menu.

    I thoroughly enjoy this blog, too.

  2. I came online to do something else this morning and diverted to here and that’s the best blog post I’ve read in as long as I can remember. I can’t comment on the Irish gatekeepers, but pretty sure what you’re saying is the same over here (the English — not known for emotional freefall), and the idea of being true to the page resonates on every level. It’s all about the story, or the experience of absorbing the story. We watched War Horse last night, and while my husband muttered about it all being very filmic but nevertheless well done, the kids and I sobbed and wailed and had the best time. That’s us on the receiving end, but I think the same applies to writing — if writer and reader both throw themselves at a story, it’s a much fuller experience. And let’s face it, we’re only here once.

    1. I tried to reply to this earlier but the Gordon Gekko phone couldn’t cope and only question marks came out on the keyboard. But yes, what’s wrong with being moved emotionally? What’s wrong with sentiment? These merchants of the heart imagine that by doling out bits of feeling wrapped up in a layer of words, we will feel things more profoundly, in a more classy sort of way, than if we’re so moved we cannot stop thinking about the plot and characters. The hell with them. I’m really sincerely sick of them.

  3. I absolutely love this post! I don’t know if you know the book ‘Outrageous Fortune: Culture and Capitalism in Twentieth-Century Ireland’, but it’s a fantastic read and supports many of the points you make above. Cleary argues that experimentation in Irish literature (he’s more interested in high modernism than the Gothic or baroque, but I think the point still stands) was erased in favour of a tedious, conservative naturalism in the course of the twentieth century. For him, this naturalism mimics the ascendency of conservatism and capitalism in post-Revolutionary Ireland, as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael made sure that all utopian/radical potential of 1916 was erased in favour of a compromise with capitalism.

    1. Yes. And even ‘experimental’ fiction smacks of a need to show one has mastered style rather than substance, I fear, latterly.

      This needs a longer answer, but am replying via a Gordon gekko phone. Am checking out the book now. Thanks for the great comment!

    2. Yes, oddly enough I was out on a long night hike with my forestry friends and colleagues and they all mentioned how visionary the original founders’ vision was, they had a 100 year plan for the state lands. I find it impossible to imagine such a plan in operation now. Our vision has shortened like glaucoma.

  4. Great stuff, Susan. What amazes me, often, is that people read the restrained books and complain about them, and yet the writers are still lauded, held-up as our greats, compared to Trevor and McGahern etc etc. as if that were the best thing possible. (I love McGahern’s work, mostly, but why would a 21st C writer want to write like him?!) Is it to do with a vision the American critics have of us that we want to uphold? A quaintness? A melancholy that defies 21st C advances? Give me exuberant prose and sex scenes any day of the week.

    1. “and yet the writers are still lauded, held-up as our greats, compared to Trevor and McGahern etc etc. as if that were the best thing possible. ”

      YES, so much yes to this. It’s really incredibly frustrating that we’re so parsimonious about just telling stories and everything has to adhere to the imagined standards of the Great High Fathers. McGahern wasn’t above being pretty savage though, have you read “Korea”? Ouch, and again ouch.

      And of course I’ve minimal interest right now in writing about Ireland at all, which along with the dramatic setting and high emotions means that I am pretty much doomed in right-thinking Irish high-minded literary circles. But yay for exuberance, and to hell with them!

      1. I love Amongst Women, Memoir, The Leavetaking and the short stories, he was an excellent writer (plenty of savagery) and he wrote of his times. But we are in different times now and the work should (if it’s contemporary) reflect that, in setting, time, tone, action etc.
        Again, a great piece, Susan – lots of reaction on Facebook too!

  5. Card on the table, I love restraint. Restraint can be great. I tend towards it on occasion myself (so much less embarrassing for the writer than all that messy feelings stuff, right?). But I agree entirely that restraint too often becomes a fetish of critics and reviewers (and authors!) and superficial elegance combined with a lack of emotion gets lauded for its marvelous style when what it is, is dull. I don’t mean to go ‘no true Scotsman’ here – I’m not saying “that isn’t restraint, it’s bad writing” but “that is restraint and it’s bad writing”.

    I put down AS Byatt’s fourth Frederica novel (which I can’t remember whether I was reading it n order), at the point in which the nightie-clad heroine is chased round the garden in the middle of the night by her axe-wielding husband. I am sure, intellectually, that it is very frightening to be chased round the garden by an axe-wielding spouse, but you sure as hell wouldn’t have got that from the prose.

    1. “But I agree entirely that restraint too often becomes a fetish of critics and reviewers (and authors!) and superficial elegance combined with a lack of emotion gets lauded for its marvelous style when what it is, is dull. ”

      Oh God, yes, that’s what it is. BORING. But as long as it’s got the beautiful phase of a “sepia-toned vignette” what matter that it’s like eating a Christmas pudding made of meat?

      I never can understand either why writers who favour such a boring style choose to recount exciting events with it. It’s like Entertaining Father Stone.

  6. This is bang-on in so many ways. I have no issue with restraint itself, as long as there’s an underlying story there. Here in the US, I’ve seen the publishers go ga-ga for young MFA-wielding writers with a showy narrative voice but who often have nothing to write about. Their stories are too-often all style and no substance.

    Another “genre” that US/Canadian publishers seen to like (or flog to older Irish-Americans) is the historical sagas and civil war reenactments, which are always relentlessly restrained/earnest and just awful boring. Nothing literary about them, just thinly disguised historical retellings with cardboard characters. I get sent loads of these to review, and rarely manage more that two chapters before falling asleep.

    You’re right that the dominant style in Irish writing of late has been the restrained. Whether that’s been due to review attention, the preferences of commissioning editors, or the influence of teaching, I haven’t the foggiest. Maybe I’m an atypical reader, but I’ll go with whatever direction the author wants to lead (comic, restrained, gothic, fantastical, mystery, whatever) if the story is there to sustain interest, if the characters are real enough.

    I’m reading two interesting books right now that are absolutely not restrained. One is Jan Carson’s Malcolm Orange Disappears, which is just mad, and the other is Niall William’s History of Rain, which has a great narrative style, but the story (so far — I’m not terribly far in) is not atypical from other Irish family sagas (although there’s certainly more than a hint that things may get crazy). It’s nice to read a couple of recent Irish novels that push the envelope against formal restraint. (But at the same time, I enjoyed Nora Webster immensely, which is why I laugh at my own inconsistent taste.)

    1. “You’re right that the dominant style in Irish writing of late has been the restrained. Whether that’s been due to review attention, the preferences of commissioning editors, or the influence of teaching, I haven’t the foggiest.”

      I strongly, STRONGLY suspect it’s the first of these three. The commissioning editors then seek it out because that’s what the gatekeepers will like. I must say this out of praise for my own publisher: they have never given a flying stuff about the Irish wangst paradigm and just publish work they think is damned good, which is how it should be!

      I’ve heard mixed reviews of Nora Webster, but I’ve really loved some of Toibin’s other works, particularly the Blackwater Lightship and his short stories. Of course there tends to be not a lot of restraint in those, though his description is beautiful. And I reviewed a collection of essays by him recently which I really enjoyed, I think it’s called Ways of Killing Your Mother. Maybe I’ll give Nora Webster a go and see.

  7. I think you’re spot on about hangups being a form of cop-out or lack of discipline. I mean, at some level, if an author can help me to overcome my own hangups then I benefit as a reader. At the same level, I may be better off without reading prose that reinforces my hangups, living life instead.

    The debate between form Vs expression has a long history in the Arts, one which I suspect will long continue, but again I think you’re spot on about the cultural climate in Ireland in particular. The inferiority complex does indeed make the conservative middle class want to be more Ascendancy than they are, even to the extent of such silliness as considering a painting to be art if and only if it has an expensive frame. The gatekeepers having a vested interest in just questions being aired also has a long history, one which the very greatest artists and intellectuals have often fallen foul of.

    Rock on! You’re in excellent company!

    1. Thanks, D 🙂 totally agree about the expensive frame. It’s all frame and no picture, or to quote Roy Campbell, “The snaffle and the curb are there, but where’s the bloody horse?”

      I feel like walking into a room full of the literati and gatekeepers and yelling “CATHOLIC! CATHOLIC! You’re all still Catholic, no matter what you do!” I’d clear the room faster than if I said “fire”

  8. A great post Susan, and I almost missed it! A Scottish writer friend alerted me to it – you’ve hit on something here for sure, am off now to investigate the book ‘Outrageous Fortune …’ mentioned by Helen Finch. Will also check out Rich’s recommendations, starving for some writing with passion. I’m currently dipping into Maurice Coakley’s ‘Ireland in the World Order’ in an attempt to get some understanding of why we are as we are.

    1. “starving for some writing with passion”

      That’s a terrible way to be. And it’s a terrible indictment of what’s happened to Irish literature, that readers end up having to read inferior material to find emotion and power, because the canon so consistently pulls punches. Why can we not have both?

      (I try to have both when I write.)

  9. Restraint is a valid artistic choice (and one I happen rather to like) but I think it needs to actually *be* restraint–that is, to convey a sense of deep feeling suppressed or withheld–‘thoughts that do lie too deep for tears’, as the man said. Much of what I see described as ‘restrained, elegant prose’ doesn’t do that. Similarly, I enjoy a good fade-to-black: there’s something very rewarding, to my (admittedly mildly filthy) mind about having to *work out* exactly who-did-what-and-to-whom. But it’s just one among many artistic choices: the problem comes when its seen as the only valid or respectable style.

    On the other hand, I often see the complaint that contemporary litfic is all style and no substance, but my problem with it is that I don’t think it’s got very much style. That ‘restrained, elegant prose’ is syntactically inert and verbally unambitious.

  10. “On the other hand, I often see the complaint that contemporary litfic is all style and no substance, but my problem with it is that I don’t think it’s got very much style.”

    I have a hole in my head from the nails your comment is hitting on it! Style isn’t just polished words, it’s making the reader feel they’re not seeing the polish, but rather viewing through glass so clear they hardly know it’s there.

    The kind of writers the gatekeepers like don’t have enough humility to stop themselves getting in the way of their prose. Ergo, BORING.

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